South Korea is on course to become "a normal middle-ranking power," according to Philip Bowring, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Bowring made the remark in a column titled "South Korea Rising" in the New York Times on Saturday.
Commenting on the visit of President Lee Myung-bak to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, he said, "Lee has been taking advantage of the regional meeting that follows the ASEAN summit to raise awareness of Korea's ambitions on the international stage, not least in Southeast Asia."
"Seoul's profile is being raised in many directions: A Korean is UN secretary general; Korea is the host of next year's Group of 20 summit; it has signed a free-trade deal with the European Union; it is seeking a big increase in its voting power at the International Monetary Fund to reflect its role in global trade," he said.
That Korea agreed with Vietnam to a "strategic cooperative partnership" "speaks to Korea's determination to keep a balance in its regional relations."
He said this is "a complex equation given Seoul's security dependence on the United States, the importance of China -- now its largest trade partner -- and its crucial but troubled relationship with Japan. Adding friends in Southeast Asia expands its influence and fine-tunes its balancing act."
"By and large Korea is very welcome -- not big enough to be a threat but important enough to offer options to countries that have sometimes felt bullied either by the U.S., Japan or China," Bowring said. "As for the ASEAN states, they mostly welcome more outside players in the region, particularly at a time when some have been worrying that China is becoming too important for their long-term comfort."
But he added some in Southeast Asia "are wary of the hard-driving nature of Korean business, and worry particularly about its hunger for resources. Perceived Korean ruthlessness can upset easier-going Southeast Asians."